The Meridenian Institute for Women and the Family is part of a national network of such institutions called into being by the 1998 law on violence against women and the family. They are tasked with helping protect women and children from abuse, challenging sexist gender stereotypes, and, in effect breaking the “Machista” elements of Venezuelan culture. They have expanded to incorporate a number of innovative initiatives such as Madres del Barrio (Mothers of the Slum), Mision Amas de Casa [i](Mission House Wife), and BANMUJER (the Women’s bank). The interviews were conducted with two of its members. Part one ran yesterday…
Yoari Garbrido – Chief of social unity in the Meridenian Institute for Woman and the Family
Could you tell me a bit about your project operating through the Community Councils?
“The institute is starting through the Community Councils the creation of committees for the Defence of Women’s Rights. The Community Councils are the organisations currently located in the communities, and its them who are in charge of creating whatever type of committee is needed by the community. This is so that there can be an organ of the institute inside each community because who after all is best placed to know the problems of communities if not the communities themselves? So, we as an institution are trying to direct and verify the creation of the committee, but the committees are the ones primarily responsible for their development and operations within the community. The committees are created in accordance with the law on the Community Councils, it explains who can constitute a committee, in this case that of the Defence of Women’s rights.”
“We are also pursuing an integal education to empower women. An integrally educated woman who knows her rights is less likely to be abused.”
What I’m trying to understand is what opportunities exist specifically because of community based action, why is it a good initiative?
“Because as I told you the community is best situated to know its own problems. For us, as an institution responsible for the whole state its very difficult to be present in each community. What’s more is that the committees are also organs of denunciation, they are able to denounce abuse. In this way, if the victim doesn’t want to denounce it (abuse) the committee can do it. Of course as well they can give a primary care to the victim, protecting her from imminent threats, and this is a really important function of the committees.”
As a vehicle of denunciation why do you think the committees are more effective than this institution?
“Its not that they’re better. It’s that we are one institution in charge of the entire state. The Community Councils have a permanent presence in the communities.”
It’s said that the invisibility of domestic abuse makes it particularly hard to deal with.
Do you think the Community Councils offer special advantages in relation to the nature of the problem?
“Yes, as I told you the committees are capable of denunciation so it’s no longer necessary that the victim, personally, is the person to denounce the problem. As you said it’s a problem that has been made invisible, firstly because the woman herself is afraid of denouncing the crime, for fear of her spouse, for economic dependence or whatever other problem. If there is consensus in a community that domestic abuse is occurring in a home its more than a right, its an obligation as a citizen and member of the committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman to denounce it”
So do you believe that the committees would go ahead and denounce the abuse without the consent of the abused party?
“It’s that they don’t need the consent.”
But do you believe they’d actually do it?
“Well, its part of the work they have accepted in the creation of the committee”
So each person, upon joining the committee has to ask himself or herself this, “am I prepared to denounce abuse in place of the victim”?
“Exactly, we don’t want the creation of the committees for its own sake, as an institutional aim. The people must be conscious, the members of the committees must be aware of what that membership means.”
How long have the Meridenian committees existed? There are 15 now I believe?
“Yes. The committees here in Merida were created late last year. We are the supervising organ, but it is the communities themselves that have to establish the committees. They have to call a citizens assembly because as written in the law, to create a committee the motion must be approved by the majority of that same community.”
So how did these 15 start? Did you guys go to 15 Community Councils with the proposal?
“Yes, but we’ve been to much more than 15. We are distributing information across the entire state, but, up to now we have succeeded in 15 in that they have called assemblies and set up their committees.”
So how’s it gone? If you’ve been to a large number of communities and yet only 15 have set up their own communities?
“The people have always been interested, but the process of setting up a committee is a bit bureaucratic.”
So all the communities have been interested?
“Yes, up to now yes. We’ve seen a lot of interest in founding committees.”
So how many communities have you spoken to?
“This new year we’ve been in contact with 10 Community Councils. We’ve only met with one so far, which invited us because it had a meeting. Unfortunately they didn’t meet the quorum to set up the committee, but they accepted the idea and should create one in the future.”
What I’m trying to understand is what is the percentage of successes that you have had in forming the committees i.e. if you go to ten Community Councils?
“The success rate has been low. The interest in formation exists, yet still, the level of consciousness among the people of their obligations under the law is really low. The Community Councils convoke the assemblies, but achieving quorum has been a real problem.”
How many denunciations have come through the committees?
“Well the committees formed right at the end of last year and up to now we haven’t received any denunciations. We don’t know whether no gender violence exists in those communities, if they haven’t reported it; we don’t know kind of time frame we should expect, it is a new project.”
Is there any kind of material connection between this institution and the committees?
“No. Though sometimes we go to them and educate by spreading information”.
Are these institutions feminist?
“No, not at all. In some places they think the institution is trying to split the woman from the man. This is completely false, our primary work is to strengthen the family connections, those within the family, in relation to the rights possessed by women just as by men. We work so that men realise their partners, sisters and daughters are valuable, and have rights independently that shouldn’t be violated. Convincing the violent that what they are doing is wrong is part of our function in protection of the nuclear family.”
Interview conducted and translated by George Gabriel